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The Life of Buddha
The legend of the life of Buddha has many variations. Even the date of his birth is disputed. In China, he is believed to have been born in 947
BCE, but elsewhere the most commonly given date is 563 BCE. At birth, he was given the name Siddhartha, and his family name was Gautama.
He is also called Sakyamuni, which means “the sage (-muni) of the Sakya clan.” Buddha is a title, not a name. It means “one who is awake.” To the Buddhists, a Buddha is no longer a person. It is a different category of beingnot a mere god, but a being superior to a god.
The following account is a popular version of Buddha’s life, focusing,
as do the Buddhist texts, on Siddhartha’s early life and his heroic quest for enlightenment. The oldest Buddhist texts were written in the first century BCE in Pali (an ancient language of northern India close to the language that Siddhartha spoke), although the oldest copy of a Pali manuscript that we actually have today is about five hundred years old.1 These stories are more concerned with symbolic significance than an accurate account of Siddhartha’s life. Later a more complete biography was written in Sanskrit.
In the Pali texts and the subsequent Sanskrit texts, we learn not only of Siddhartha’s life, but also of his past lives and of the twenty-four
Buddhas who preceded him in other ages. At one time in a past incarnation,
Siddhartha was a Brahman named Sumedha, an ascetic who came into the prescience of the first Buddha, named Dipankara. Like all Buddhas, Dipankara had the power of clairvoyance, and seeing
Sumedha in the midst of the assembled crowd, he announced that one day Sumedha would also become a Buddha. This event set Siddhartha on his spiritual path, and led to his eventual Buddhahood. In the following
547 incarnations, Siddhartha experienced life as a lion, a snake,
and other animals, as well as a human. During this process he purified himself and perfected the ten virtues: generosity, morality, renunciation,
intelligence, energy, patience, truthfulness, determination, benevolence,
and equanimity. He became a Bodhisattva, a title that refers to a person on his or her way to becoming a Buddha, and he incarnated in
Tusita Heaven with the gods.
Tusita Heaven is a paradise above Mount Meru in the sacred center of the world. The beings that live there are gods, but in Buddhist theology,
the gods are not immortal. Although their lives are so long that they seem immortal to us, they, too, will suffer death. Of the six worlds shown on the Wheel of Life mandala, Tusita is the best place in which to incarnate. Realizing that his time there was ending, Siddhartha knew that it was time to incarnate in the world of men and to take the final step that he had been preparing for throughout all of his past lives: to become a Buddha.
Siddhartha was born on the full moon in Wesak (our month of May),
although the Chinese fix his date of birth on our modern calendar as
April 8. He was born in Kapilavastu, a principality that no longer exists but which included an area that is now encompassed by northern India and Nepal. His father and mother were Suddhodhana and Maya, the wealthy rulers of Kapilavastu. They were members of the Ksatriya caste
(the noble or warrior class).
Before Siddhartha’s birth, Maya had a dream in which she was visited by a white elephant with six tusks. In the dream, the elephant impregnated
Maya by piercing her side painlessly with one of his tusks. Ten lunar months later, Siddhartha was born. After his birth, it is said that he immediately stood and a white lotus rose under his feet from which he surveyed the ten directions. He then took seven steps toward each of the cardinal directions, and declared this to be his final birth. In some versions of the story, Suddhodhana and Maya had not yet consummated their marriage when Maya became pregnant. Therefore, Siddhartha’s birth, like that of Jesus, was from a virgin. Seven days after Siddhartha’s birth, Maya died of joy and ascended to Tusita Heaven. Maya’s sister,
Mahaprajapati, married Suddhodhana and raised Siddhartha.
A short time later, a seer named Asita, a saintly old man from the
Himalayas, came to visit the child and confirmed that two possible destinies awaited him. If Siddhartha embraced a worldly life, he would grow to be a chakravartin (literally, “a wheel-turner”), a great emperor over a unified India. If he embraced asceticism, he would become a world saviora Buddha. Asita was sure that Siddhartha would take the religious path.
As the child was growing, his father summoned a council of wise
Brahmans (members of the priest class). They determined that Siddhartha’s destiny hinged on whether or not he beheld the four sights:
old age, sickness, death, and the life of the holy hermit. Suddhodhana wanted his son to succeed him to the throne and become a powerful ruler instead of an ascetic, so he kept Siddhartha in a beautiful palace with sumptuous gardens and delightful young women to serve as his attendants or as his courtesans. Some accounts say that the palace was surrounded by three walls; others say that it was surrounded by four gardens, one for each of the four directions. All accounts agree that the sight or even the mention of death or grief was forbidden.
The young, charismatic Siddhartha excelled in the martial arts and in his intellectual studies. He was the perfect example of his caste, even surpassing the knowledge of his teachers. When he was sixteen, his father encouraged his marriage to the beautiful princess Yasodhara. To win her, Siddhartha had to enter a competition of martial arts. He won by stringing and shooting a perfect arrow with his ancestral bow, a bow that most men could not even lift. After this, Siddhartha became enchanted by the delights of marriage, and his father felt secure that his son, having been conquered by love, would follow the worldly path.
However, this enchantment did not last. The young man grew restless;
his life of sensual pleasure began to appear shallow and vain.
Motivated by a desire for greater knowledge of the world, Siddhartha decided to leave the palace and prepared to visit the city in his chariot.
His father, worried about what Siddhartha would find there, had the entire city swept clean of any unpleasantness. But the truth prevailed after all. Siddhartha saw an old man, bent, trembling, and leaning on a canethe first of the four sights that had been predicted by the
Brahmans. The young man had never seen someone that old before,
and it taught him that decrepitude is the fate of those who live out their lives.
On his second visit to the city, Siddhartha came across a man suffering from an incurable disease. On his third visit, he saw a funeral procession carrying a corpse. Through these experiences, Siddhartha learned that all human lives eventually include suffering and death, and that it is the fate of humanity to repeat this suffering again and again during the seemingly endless rotations of the wheel of reincarnation.
On his fourth and final visit to the city, Siddhartha met a sadhu, a holy hermit, who wandered through the country carrying a begging bowl. Despite his poverty, this man was calm and peaceful. It seemed to Siddhartha that this man offered him a path out of the torment that the other sights had caused him. He returned to the palace with hope.
After his son Rahula was born, Siddhartha realized that his obligation to continue his royal line had been fulfilled. With great strength and determination, he prepared to leave the palace and seek enlightenment by becoming a sadhu. One night while his family slept, he rode out on his faithful horse, Kantaka, determined not to return until he reached his goal. He gave Kantaka to his equerry, cut off his hair, and exchanged his splendid robes for those of a hunter.
Siddhartha’s quest for enlightenment moved through three phases.
First, he wished to attain wisdom. He sought out two of the foremost
Hindu masters of the day and learned all he could from their tradition,
including the discipline of meditation.
In the second phase, Siddhartha decided that the desires of his body were holding him back. To crush his body’s interference, he joined a band of ascetics. In that time, sadhus were known to practice severe austerity, but Siddhartha outdid his teachers in every discipline and gathered five disciples of his own. In a final effort to attain victory over his body, he went on a prolonged fast. Eventually, he turned himself into a living skeleton, but this still did not bring him to his goal. Siddhartha saw that asceticism was as futile and as egotistical as sensuality
neither would bring an end to suffering. He began to eat and build up his strength. When a village girl named Sujata offered him a bowl of rice and milk, he accepted it. After his meal, he bathed in the river. In that time, several practitioners of Jainism had fasted themselves to death in an effort to gain liberation and Siddhartha’s disciples hoped that he would do the same. When he began to eat, his disciples left him in disgust.
Now Siddhartha entered the third and final stage of his quest. He was inspired to follow the Middle Way, a path of balance between the extremes of denial and indulgence. He wandered alone until one evening he sat down under a fig tree (later named the Bodhi Tree, which means
“the tree of enlightenment”). Here, he entered into a state of deep mystic concentration and vowed not to rise until he had attained his goal.
Mara, the Evil One, king of the demons called maras, realized that
Siddhartha was nearing his goal. If Siddhartha could find an end to suffering,
this would be a threat to Mara’s power, and he was determined to interfere. First, Mara sent his three voluptuous daughters, Lust, Passion,
and Delight. Having overcome his attachment to sensuality in his life as a prince, Siddhartha was immune to their temptations. Next, Mara tried to frighten him by sending an army of demons equipped with an imaginative array of sadistic weapons. However, Siddhartha’s life as an ascetic had made him immune to fear of bodily harm, and, as the demons approached, they found themselves halted. Siddhartha had ceased to echo emotions like fear and anger, emotions that the demons needed to feed on. In place of these emotions, they found only compassion. As the demons entered Siddhartha’s aura, they became calm and peaceful and simply bowed down before him.
Mara made the final attack himself. Riding on a cloud, he hurled his terrible flaming disk at Siddhartha. Yet this weapon, which could cleave a mountain, was useless against Siddhartha. The disk transformed into a garland of flowers and hung suspended above Siddhartha’s head.
Mara was beaten. In a last effort, he challenged Siddhartha’s right to do what he was doing. Siddhartha merely touched the earth with a finger of his right hand, and, in a voice like thunder, the earth answered,
“I bear you witness.”
It was Wesak, the night of the full moon in May. During that night,
Siddhartha entered into the initial stage of enlightenment. For the first time, he could see the entire wheel of rebirth, including all of his past lives. He saw the suffering of all living creatures, and then the means to end that suffering. He realized that as long as he tried to find the way to his salvation or his enlightenment, he was still trapped in his ego. It was only when he replaced all concern for himself with total compassion that he was free. When he did this, he was no longer a separate ego and he and the world became one. As the sun rose, Siddhartha was fully enlightenedbut he was no longer Siddhartha. He was now Buddha,
which means “the awakened one.”
Buddha remained in meditation for another seven days before rising from his seat. He remained near his tree for several weeks. Then he realized that before he could proceed, he had to make a decision. Two paths were open to him: he could enter Nirvana at once, or he could renounce his own deliverance for a while in order to remain on earth and spread his message. Mara, of course, urged him to enter Nirvana. Mara argued that people are ignorant and incapable of understanding Buddha’s wisdom and that Buddha should leave them to their own devices. After some initial hesitation, Buddha had a vision that helped him realize that this was the final trick of the ego. To enter Nirvana at once without thought of others who were in need of his teaching would mean letting go of the very compassion that had brought him this opportunity. There was only one answer. Without further hesitation Buddha said, “Some will understand.” Buddha remained on earth to teach and to become an embodiment of wisdom and joy in the world.
Buddha’s first sermon, in a place called Deer Park, was to the five disciples who had previously deserted him. They were quickly converted to his new teaching. Over the next half-century, these five disciples became the nucleus of a monastic community that grew to include both men and women from all classes of society. Buddha’s parents, his wife, his son, his half-brother, and even his cousin became his disciples.
Everywhere Buddha went he made converts, and his teachings reached countless individuals. This oral tradition provided the foundation for the scriptures of Buddhism, the sutras. It was only after reaching the age of eighty that Buddha died. He was accidentally served a poisonous meal (some say it was mushrooms; others say pork). His last words included:
All compounds grow old.
Work out your own salvation with diligence.2
After his death, Buddha passed into the bliss of Nirvana.
The Four Noble Truths
We may wish that we were at that first sermon in Deer Park when it is said that Buddha set the Dharmachakra, the Wheel of the Law, in motion.
What was this teaching that has had such lasting value for over two thousand years?
By calling the teaching a “wheel,” Buddhists created the symbolic equivalent to St. Ambrose labeling the four Platonic virtues “cardinal.”
They were saying that the teaching, like Plato’s four cardinal virtues,
was capable of overcoming the wheel of fate or the wheel of reincarnation.
Like the virtues, this first sermon had a fourfold structure. It is called the Four Noble Truths and they are listed as follows:
I. All life is dukkha, a word usually translated as “suffering.” In
Buddha’s time, dukkha described a wheel whose axle was bent or off-center. By this Buddha was not saying that life is continuously painful, but that all lives contain some pain and suffering. Buddha pinpointed four principal moments when this is true: at the trauma of birth, in illness, in the decline of old age, and at the approach of death. He also spoke of the pain of being separated from what one loves or desires, and the pain of being chained to what one does not desire. However, even at its best, there is something shallow and off-center about the pleasures of life. Buddha had lived like a playboy, having every desire granted and not burdened by anything,
and yet there was something missing. Like Plato, he saw that the impermanence of life made it shallow. He longed to experience the eternal, to live in the center.
II. The cause of dukkha is tanha, which is usually translated as
“desire.” However, tanha is the desire for individual fulfillment. It is the desire that is ego-centered and not concerned with the good of the group. When we enslave others for our gain, this is tanha.
When we pollute the earth to satisfy our desires, this is tanha.
However, when we compare ourselves to others, hoping that we will feel more beautiful, smart, or important if we can see their shortcomings, or we become depressed because we did not measure up, this is also tanha. In Plato’s soul of appetite we are thoroughly immersed in tanha. At this stage we need to learn the virtue of temperance, for to placate every demand of our desires without a sense of balance is not even good for us.
III. The cure to life’s suffering, or dukkha, is to let go of tanha. This is the logical conclusion to be drawn from the second Noble Truth.
This is the same cure that Plato prescribed. In his Republic, when we move our consciousness into the soul of will, we continue to experience personal desire, only now for fame and prestige. But at the same time, to gain prestige, we begin to work for the good of others,
and this concern for others pulls us out of tanha. In Plato’s Republic,
those who could develop the soul of reason were chosen to be the leaders. This is because at this level, their desire for personal gain takes a back seat to their desire for promoting the well-being of the community. At this level, tanha is overcome by compassion. The philosopher king is one who has become the embodiment of compassion.
Buddha also detailed a procedure for overcoming tanha and this is the fourth Noble Truth.
IV. There is a method for overcoming tanha. It is called the Eightfold
Path. The eight steps of this path are usually associated with eight key words, which describe the recommended actions. These are the eight paths:
1. Develop right knowledge. For a human to create anything, the first step is to create a plan, an idea of what is to be created.
This is why Plato believed that the archetypes were on a higher plane of realitythey are necessary for physical creation to proceed. The Eightfold Path is the plan for the end of suffering.
The first step is to learn it.
2. Develop right aspiration. The way to overcome tanha is to replace it with a healthy desire. Before we start, we must be clear that we desire enlightenment more than the numerous diversions that fill our minds daily. This is how one develops the cardinal virtue temperance.
3. Develop right speech. Basically this means developing truthfulness,
but this is not a matter of just telling the truth. It means weeding out of our speech what is hurtful, disruptive, or trivial.
One old Indian proverb expresses the sentiment that some people cut off the heads of others to make themselves look taller. To develop right speech, we must become conscious of how much of what we say falls into this category of behavior.
To break people of this habit, Pythagoras required that those wishing to enter his community should remain silent for the first five years of study.
4. Develop right behavior. To help clarify what right behavior is,
Buddha made a list called the Five Precepts. Each of the precepts is a negative statement, a proscription of behavior. Although it is not as widely known in the West, each proscription is paired with a positive direction, called the Five Dharmas.3 The Five Precepts and Dharmas are:
a. Do not killdevelop love.
b. Do not stealdevelop generosity.
c. Do not liedevelop truthfulness.
d. Do not commit sexual misconductdevelop contentment.
e. Do not take intoxicantsdevelop awareness.
These five proscriptions parallel the Five Wisdoms designed to help develop each of the five archetypal aspects of Buddha called Jinas (see Chart 3 on page 121). We will discuss the Jinas and their five wisdoms in more detail later in chapter 4.
The Pythagoreans, who lived in Italy in the same century as
Buddha, observed these same proscriptions and directions. The first is not only a commandment not to take human life, but not to harm any life. The literal translation of the text is to abstain “from harming living beings.”4
The Pythagoreans and many Buddhists observe the first precept by maintaining a vegetarian diet. The first Buddhists were mendicants who begged for their food. Although they were instructed not to kill an animal for meat, they did eat meat when it was given to them. Once the Buddhists settled in monasteries where they provided their own food, the monks became vegetarians.
The precept about sexual misconduct has different applications depending on one’s role in life. A Buddhist monk maintains strict chastity not because sex is evil, but because to commit oneself to this level on the path to enlightenment, sexual energy must be diverted to this goal. For a married householder,
this means to be true to one’s marriage vows.
5. Develop right livelihood. Progression on the path is impossible if we undermine our practice by spending our working time in activities that are poisonous to our consciousness. Buddha considered certain occupations incompatible with a serious endeavor to seek enlightenment. In his lifetime these included poison merchant,
slave trader, prostitute, butcher, brewer, arms dealer, and tax collector. At that time, most tax collectors were corrupt.
6. Develop right effort. One of the three poisons found depicted in the center of the wheel of reincarnation is stupidity and sluggishness represented by a pig. It is not enough to want to progress toward enlightenment, one has to work at it. This takes discipline and perseverance. This is the cardinal virtue strength.
To develop this virtue, Plato recommended gymnastics because physical perseverance stems from mental perseverance. Similarly,
in Pythagorean communities the day was divided between contemplation,
study, and physical exercise. This type of lifestyle creates a natural division between physical exertion and contemplation.
The communities that Buddha founded consisted of wandering mendicants who came together in encampments during the monsoon season. At first, these retreats were in caves and makeshift shelters. Later, land was donated to them and shelters were built for the monks. Unlike other mendicants at the time, the
Buddhists were noted for their cheerfulness, or “dwelling with minds like wild deer.”5 Cheerfulness is the ally of perseverance.
7. Develop right mindfulness. Like Plato and Socrates, Buddha believed that injustice stems from ignorance, not evil intent. To overcome ignorance, one has to become self-aware. To accomplish this, Buddha recommended a rigorous process of selfexamination.
We must continually observe ourselves as others do and question the motivations for our actions. When looking for injustice in the world, we must first look to ourselves. It is better to spend more time concentrating on offering justice to others than demanding justice from others. When we live in this way, we not only change our behavior, but seemingly miraculous changes can happen in our lives. The Buddhist text called
The Dhammapada opens with the line, “All we are is the result of what we have thought.”6
8. Develop right absorption. This is the practice of meditation as
Buddha practiced it under the Bodhi Tree. This is the most important step in the Eightfold Path. Buddhist meditation is based on the understanding that there are four parts to every human. In modern Western terms they are the physical body,
the conscious mind, the unconscious mind, and, as psychologist
Carl Jung titled it, the collective unconscious. As he delved into his study of the unconscious, Jung found that at a deep level the individual consciousness faded out and a group consciousness emerged. This is the level where the archetypes exist.
Archetype is a term that Jung borrowed from Plato. He used it to describe personalities or ideas that exist in all humans. They emerge in different cultures as similar patterns in myths, or as gods and goddesses that exhibit the same qualities although they may be clothed in different trappings.